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Great Works: The Copper drinking Fountain, 1734 (28cm x 23cm), Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was a doggedly persistent painter. He was at work during the Age of Enlightenment when notions of what constituted the real were shifting. Newtonian physics was making its mark. He returned again and again to the same motifs. And yet to use such a word as motif feels not quite right. It smacks too much of art-historical connoisseurship. What we should do instead is to name the actual humdrum objects that he painted: the game birds, the kitchen utensils, the heaped basket of wild strawberries, with glass, flower, peach and cherries in attendance. Not much, one would say. More than enough, he would reply – along with posterity. He was a Parisian painter, and to paint such lowly things was not quite a Parisian thing to do. Was that not best left to those Lowlanders up in the North? Chardin disagreed. Not noisily though. He simply continued to do what he did best, to carve out a niche for himself, over decades. In spite of the fact that he was a million miles from the bravura of the fashionable history painter, the Académie accepted him for what he was.

Here we have, in a painting that he made when he was 35 years of age, the essence of everything that he was, and everything that he strove to be. Here is the transfiguration of the utterly ordinary. We could think of Morandi in the context of these objects, but Chardin is more giving than Morandi in certain respects, more colourful, less pared back, more ready to acknowledge and celebrate the potential for visual richness and variety in the utterly ordinary, more ready to robustly characterise and animate that which is so often overlooked or undervalued.

The organisation of this still life of kitchen objects is almost comically Edward Lear-like in its deft allusion to hierarchies. The copper water fountain, bearer of the source of all life, lords it over the other objects, whose role it is to collect and then distribute what the fountain dispenses. It feels unbudgeable, at the centre of its own universe, lord of all it surveys. It has an almost religious, monstrance-like centrality, bulgingly bishop-like, prideful to the brim with its own secure presence in this world. It positively swells outward in the presence of onlookers. Its aura of sacredness is comically enhanced by its dull, coppery gleam, which also gives it a hint of monkishness. Monk and bishop all in one then. The knob at the top of its lid nudges up against the very top of the painting, as if, like some rebel angel, this fountain is dangerously challenging the heights. It can go no further. It has reached its apogee. Its base, thanks to its faithful support and retainer (a particularly dependable and workaday looking four-legged stool), is lodged solid on the dappled and rather indeterminate surface that it shares with the objects which attend upon it, and even in this particularly straitened and hole-in-corner domestic environment, seem to depend upon it for their utility, their very reason-for-being. The other objects look less solidly lodged here, more itinerant by nature. By their very haphazard positioning close to the urn, facing in this direction or that, randomly squeezed up together or raggedly set apart from each other, they seem to be ready to go out into the world of the rest of the house, filling other containers as and when that service is required. Not so this fountain. Things come to it, and those who bear these things. There is nothing for it but this place. It is too massy, too utterly dominating of its own tiny universe beside this stretch of old wall, against which its shadow looms, to wish for anything better or different. It feels utterly defined here, utterly itself.

Yes, it is almost as if this still life is serving as a kind of parable, as a way of expressing Chardin's fast held opinions about that which underpins and makes possible – he was also much given to the drawing of servants, who are often to be found using such objects as the ones that we can see in this painting – the orderly life of those who lord it over (and choose to ignore, for the most part) such objects as these. The physical triumphalism of this painting is all about the essential dignity of the lowly, whether animate or not, and how we depend upon them. Without them we would simply not be able to go about our gloriously superficial lives.

There is no activity of any kind in this painting. No water drips to steal our attention away from the objecthood of the black jug, the bucket, the ladle and the copper fountain itself. There is an immense solidity and authority to this fountain. It seems to wish to posture before our very eyes as it stands proudly high on its stool. The concentric rings of its lid seem to adorn it and to shift it, just a touch, in the direction of an object of decorative beauty. That cover could be a rather exotic hat of a particularly handsome Mongol kind.

This is evidently a further point to bear in mind: the lowly can be unexpectedly beautiful too. It is just a matter of the angle at which you choose to see them, whether with the naked eye or, squinting just a touch, through the ivory-handled lorgnette. If the latter, you pass on quickly and miss life's essentials.


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) had a particularly subtle and unemphatic manner of painting, and a choice of subject matter that seldom rose above the humdrum. In the flamboyant age of Boucher and Fragonard, he felt a touch out of key with his times. For all that, his dogged virtues won out in the end. In his paintings of ordinary objects and ordinary people, he succeeded in investing the day-to-day with exquisite qualities.